Exploring The Link Between Interpersonal Empathy And Strong Relationships
Nov 16, 2023
Have you ever thought about why some relationships stay strong and make us happy while others don’t last?
Well, one big reason is something called “interpersonal empathy.” This might sound like a big, complicated phrase, but it’s actually quite simple.
Interpersonal empathy means understanding and sharing other people’s feelings. It’s like having a special power that helps us connect with others on a deep level.
It’s the secret sauce that makes relationships strong and long-lasting.
As a highly sensitive INFJ male, I’m often praised for my high interpersonal empathy that makes others feel seen and heard.
In this article, we’ll explore interpersonal empathy and how it improves and strengthens our relationships. So, let’s start this journey together!
What is Interpersonal Empathy?
Interpersonal empathy is like a superpower in building strong and lasting relationships with people.
It’s all about understanding and sharing the feelings of others. Interpersonal empathy helps you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and truly grasp their feelings.
It’s not about fixing their problems but about being there for them and showing that you care.
Empathy involves both understanding and feeling. When you understand someone’s feelings, it means you get why they feel that way.
But empathy goes further – it means you actually feel something similar to their feelings. It’s like an emotional connection that says, “I’m with you in this.”
Imagine your friend is going through a tough time, maybe a breakup. If you have interpersonal empathy, you won’t just say, “I understand you’re sad.”
Instead, you’ll feel that sadness, too, and you’ll show it by comforting your friend, maybe with a shoulder to cry on or some comforting words.
What is an Example of Empathy in Interpersonal Communication?
Let’s dive into a real-life example of empathy in action. Imagine you’re at work, and your colleague, Jane, seems upset.
She’s usually cheerful, but today she looks down. You could ignore it, but empathy encourages you to reach out.
So, you approach Jane and ask her how she’s doing. She may respond with, “Oh, it’s nothing,” but your empathy radar tells you there’s more to it.
You say, “I can see something’s bothering you. If you want to talk about it, I’m here.”
Jane might open up and share her worries about a struggling project.
Instead of brushing her off, you listen attentively and ask beforehand: “do you want advice or do you want me to listen?”
You don’t recklessly interrupt or offer immediate solutions (only offer advice if she’s open to it).
Paraphrase what she's sharing intermittently out loud and check if you understood her correctly so that she has a chance to correct you if you’re not completely understanding her.
For example: You: “So Jane, if I understand correctly you’re saying that the project struggles a lot due to incoherent project management, and despite that you’re not the project manager you still feel responsible for the project’s inefficiency because the project was your idea?”
Jane: “Yes, and also because I hired this failing project manager!”
You: “Aha, I see now.”
Paraphrasing is powerful, because if you are spot on in summarizing her experience, the feelings of being heard and understood in the other will be amplified.
Paraphrasing also works great if you’re a bit off in summarizing the experience of the other correctly, because it gives the other a chance to correct your summary, and it shows the other that you are really trying to understand.
You might ask deeper questions in response to what she’s sharing to grow your own understanding (active listening).
You acknowledge her feelings, saying, “I can imagine that must be frustrating.”
Practice nonviolent communication and foster profound empathy by trying to understand the underlying need of the other that’s causing her feelings.
For example: You: “Do you feel frustrated within this chaotic project, because you have a need for order?”
Don’t worry about getting the feeling and underlying need exactly correct. Let the other person correct your guess at their feeling and underlying need if that's required.
Photo by Jopwell on Pexels
For example: Jane: “Yes, I feel frustrated, but not because I need order.. I guess, because I have a need for respect.”
The power of nonviolent communication dwells in your sincere attempt at understanding the feeling and fundamental need underneath the feeling of the other person, and making the other person conscious about how their feelings are caused by underlying needs that aren’t being met (and not necessarily somebody else’s actions).
Uncovering those underlying needs can be a relief to the person as it fosters greater understanding of themselves and they’re feeling seen and understood.
Learn more about nonviolent communication via a free teaching series as a prelude to the full online course via my friends at Sounds True by clicking here (affiliate link).
Your empathy shines when you show her you understand by saying, “I’ve been in a similar situation before, and it’s tough.”
Now, you’re not just understanding; you’re feeling it with her. You’re creating a connection by sharing that emotional load.
However, don’t overdo sharing your own experiences on the subject, because the focus still needs to be on the other. Don’t hijack the conversation!
If you decide to share your similar experience then do so around the very end of the conversation, so you’re sure you gave the other person enough room to express themselves.
Empathy doesn’t stop there. You might suggest working together on the project or offering some tips that helped you in the past after asking if she’s open to advice.
By doing this, you’re acknowledging Jane’s feelings and actively trying to help her, but only if she wants help.
How Can I Improve My Interpersonal Empathy Skills?
Improving your interpersonal empathy skills can be a game-changer in your relationships, whether with friends, family, or colleagues.
Here’s a list of simple steps to help you become more empathetic:
1. Active Listening
When someone is talking to you, be fully present. Put away distractions like your phone or thoughts about your to-do list.
Make eye contact, nod, make encouraging vocal sounds like “hmmm” or “aha” sporadically and show you’re engaged.
At times interrupt tactfully and subtly to ask deeper questions about what’s being shared.
Paraphrase intermittently to check if you understand correctly what has been shared so far.
This makes the other person feel heard and valued.
2. Ask Open-Ended Questions to Zoom Out
Instead of asking closed-ended questions, ask open-ended ones.
For example, instead of saying, “Did you have a good weekend?” ask, “How was your weekend?” This invites the person to share more and allows you to understand their feelings better in the broadest sense.
You also have more opportunity to dive deeper on important aspects this way, due to more information being shared which you can focus on.
3. Ask Closed-Ended Questions to Zoom In
Use open-ended questions and closed-ended questions to dive deeper and zoom in on certain information.
For example, “You’ve said you went to your parents this weekend and had a painful conversation with your mother” (paraphrasing), “what was so painful about that conversation?” (open-ended question), “did you talk about last week’s incident you wanted to discuss with her?” (closed-ended question).
If you think you’re close to an important underlying feeling of the other, you can try to pinpoint them via closed-ended questions.
4. Practice Nonviolent Communication
Learn to practice clinical psychologist Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication.
By focussing on the feelings and underlying needs of others during an argument, or emotional conversation, the nonviolent communication method resolves conflict and emotional distress of others with ease by fostering empathy and considering everyone’s needs so that all parties can feel heard and understood.
For example: You: “Do you feel sad, because you have a need for human connection?”
Other: “Yes (*sobbing), I’ve been so lonely without real human contact these past years living isolated in my apartment in this rural area. I’m sick of it..”
Get access to a free Nonviolent Communication teaching series as a prelude to the full Online Course via my friends at Sounds True by clicking here (affiliate link).
5. Practice Perspective-Taking
Try to imagine the world from the other person’s point of view. What might they be going through? How would you feel if you were in their situation?
This can help you understand their emotions on a deeper level.
6. Avoid Judging or Criticizing
Empathy thrives in a judgment-free zone. Don’t jump to conclusions or criticize someone for how they feel. Or what they’re going through.
Remember, everyone has unique experiences, and it’s okay to have different feelings and perspectives.
7. Share Your Feelings Tactfully
Sometimes, sharing similar experiences can show that you understand and empathize.
However, be careful not to make it about you or overshadow the other person’s feelings. Keep the focus on them.
8. Practice Patience
Empathy takes time and effort. It’s not always easy to connect with someone else’s emotions, especially if they differ. Be patient with yourself, and keep practicing.
Be patient with the one you’re talking to as well. Allow them space and time to navigate through their emotions.
9. Learn from Others
Observe naturally empathetic people and learn from them. What do they do differently? How do they make others feel understood and supported?
10. Empathize with Yourself
Don’t forget to be empathetic with yourself, too. Self-compassion is an essential part of empathy. For instance, you might feel triggered or attacked by the other person during the conversation.
Give yourself some inner empathy by acknowledging how difficult this conversation is, but that you’re doing the best you can to work it out.
Treat yourself kindly when you make mistakes or have tough times.
What Are the Interpersonal Skills of Empathy?
Interpersonal skills help us connect with others and build better relationships.
Empathy is one of these important skills, and it’s like a special tool that helps us understand and share other people’s feelings.
Let’s explore some of the key interpersonal skills that make up empathy:
Photo by Cottonbro Studio on Pexels
This skill involves paying full attention when someone is talking, but it means not that you’re only passively hearing what the other person is saying throughout the whole conversation.
Active listening also asks of you to actively partake in the interaction by occasionally, tactfully and gently interrupting the person to paraphrase what they’ve shared so far and to dive deeper by asking further questions about what they’ve shared.
During the conversation you actively reflect on and respond to what’s being said.
You notice non-verbal cues and respond to them. You also use non-verbal cues like head nodding or eye-contact and facial expression to encourage the other to continue talking.
When you actively listen, you show that you care about their words and feelings and are actively immersed in shaping the best possible understanding of their experience.
Because of this active effort on the listener’s part, the speaker will feel very much validated, heard and understood if the listener is doing a great job at active listening.
Active listening will keep both listener and speaker engaged and will build a strong connection, but it’s an art to master it fully.
However, by sincerely adding all the ingredients of active listening to a conversation you’re already having higher quality conversations!
Empathy means being able to recognize and understand how someone is feeling. It’s like having a radar for emotions.
You can tell if someone is happy, sad, or angry, and you get why they feel that way.
However, don’t just assume, check in with the other to confirm your intuition/radar is right.
It’s not enough to understand someone’s feelings; you must show them you understand.
This skill involves using words and body language to mirror their feelings back to them.
Avoid saying that “You know how they feel”, because this can come across as if you’re minimizing their feelings.
Try to pinpoint their exact feeling and try to uncover the underlying unmet need that’s causing the feeling (nonviolent communication).
Seeing from Their Perspective
Imagine looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. This skill, called perspective-taking, helps you understand why they feel the way they do.
It’s like stepping into their shoes for a moment. It can help minimize or eradicate judgment.
Being empathetic means not judging or criticizing someone for how they feel.
Everyone’s emotions are valid, even if they differ from yours. You accept their feelings without making them feel wrong.
Sharing Your Feelings Carefully
Sometimes, sharing your own similar experiences can make others feel understood.
However, you must do it carefully to avoid making it all about you. The focus should stay on their feelings.
Having the patience to let the other find words to express themselves is a hallmark of empathy as well.
It creates a safe atmosphere where the other is allowed to take their time.
If the other person feels rushed due to your impatience, they will think you don’t really care and won’t feel safe to open up.
You wouldn’t either if you think a timer could go off any time you tried to share something personal. You’ll think you’re a burden to them.
Infinite patience is key!
Interpersonal empathy is vital in building strong and meaningful relationships. It’s about understanding and sharing the feelings of others, creating a deeper connection, and offering support when needed most.
By practicing active listening, asking open-ended questions, close-ended questions and embracing perspective-taking and the right time, you can enhance your empathy skills and foster healthier relationships in all aspects of your life.
Remember, empathy is not just a skill; it’s a gift you give to others and yourself. So, put on those empathy glasses and watch your relationships flourish!
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